Once you have realised that you are now a doll collector rather than just a person with a few dolls it is time to decide whether to have them out on display or keep them safely stored away.
Sadly, for many people storage is the only option because either they don’t have the room to display all their dolls or perhaps they may not be in permanent accommodation. It may be a case of having a couple of favourites on display and the rest packed in boxes somewhere until you can finally have them out to enjoy. Naomi and I have both had to pack away some of our dolls and teddies and we can’t wait for the day when we can have them all out on display in a new home. We do have a lot of dolls and other toys between us so it’s likely that even when we move we may have to rotate some displays although I am sure we’ll find a way to have our favourites out where we can enjoy them all the time.
Things to consider
- Space: A room of their own or as part of the decor of your home.
- Lighting: Too much light can cause fading and discolouration to dolls and clothing.
- Damp: Keeping dolls in a damp or humid area can cause mould and fragile old materials may be damaged beyond repair.
- Vermin: Insects and pests like mice and rats can cause serious damage
- Dust: Displaying dolls in a dust-free environment at the very least saves a lot of work.
- Pets/Children: Will the cat jump on your doll shelves? Are they safe from young children and dogs that like to chew?
- Furniture: What sort of display units should I get?
- Stands: Do I need them?
- Creating an attractive display
Apart from space issues you also have to consider the people you live with. If you have young children and/ or pets you may not want to put dolls out where they can be damaged. Some family members may not even like dolls so the best plan is probably to have a room where you can enjoy your dolls without them taking over the whole house. I have a whole bedroom devoted to my doll collection and up until the last couple of years, that’s where they stayed. David helped me set up the room, but he mostly stayed out of it, saying there were too many eyes. He did like to show the room to visitors sometimes though. Since he has been gone the dolls have gradually crept out into the rest of the house but I still only display them in the doll room. I do my doll photography in the kitchen and Op Shop dolls are usually stored in the spare bedroom and are often found sitting in the kitchen waiting for attention. As long as nobody in the household minds and it’s safe to do so there is no reason why dolls can’t be displayed in odd corners around the whole house or even be a feature of your living area.
Finding the right conditions
There are some things to take into consideration though. People who collect antique dolls know that they are best kept in a room where you can control temperature, light and exposure to dust and insects. Most of us can’t keep our dolls in museum-quality conditions but keeping your dolls away from strong sunlight will prevent fading for one thing. I have more than one doll whose clothing has faded from too much exposure to sunlight through the window. I like natural daylight in the rest of the house but the doll room I try to keep a bit darker. This is a good plan for any collectables. Naomi says that too much sunlight will fade the colours on tin lithographed dolls houses and other tin toys too. My doll room only has one window and has dark coloured lined curtains. I keep them drawn a lot of the time which is why I prefer to sew in another room. Since I started showing the house I’ve had to have the curtains partially open or the room is too dark to be seen properly.
Dampness and humidity are things you want to avoid too. If you have to store dolls try not to keep them in a damp space like a shed for longer than you have to. I’ll cover storage in a separate post.
I do recommend making your displays easily accessible too. Think about your physical capabilities. Is it going to be difficult to get items off a high shelf? Do ladders make you nervous? Or is it difficult to kneel or bend? My highest doll shelf contains my smallest costume dolls and I need a ladder to get to them. It’s not ideal when I want to clean them or rearrange the shelf. I used to get David to help me when I needed to clean or rearrange the top shelf. I would pass the dolls down to him and he’d put them on the table. He tended to put them in a big heap which was not ideal but on my own, I have to keep going up and down so it takes longer.
Pets and Children
If you share your home with pets or children you may want to restrict access to your display area except when they are being supervised. Little children can be taught not to touch things without permission and about washing their hands before playing with the dolls. We like to handle and play with our dolls and although I don’t have children or grandchildren I like the idea of them learning to appreciate dolls and being allowed to play with them. This could be the next generation of doll collectors. As for pets, we have had our own mishaps with our pets, chewed up paper dolls, missing Barbie props and the tragic case of Little Tommy. Even well-trained dogs may not be totally trustworthy. Naomi and I laughed at the story about a guard dog who destroyed valuable teddy bears he was supposed to be guarding but it goes to show that you don’t always know how a pet is going to react to something.
In a perfect world, our dolls would all be displayed under glass in purpose-built cabinets and shelves. I would like to keep my oldest and smallest dolls in glass cabinets for their safety. However, you can improvise quite well with discarded furniture as I have done. I have an older style entertainment cabinet which once we stopped using it in the living room became a doll display unit. The top has a glass cabinet where I keep Naomi’s Rosebud babies Ada and Cocoa and some small porcelain dolls I consider too fragile to be on a shelf. The area where the TV was holds large older dolls like our Shirley Temple, Sweet Sue and the celluloid, composition and early hard plastic dolls. The cupboard below is handy for storage. Earlier this year I also repurposed another timber entertainment unit I was no longer using in the living room. This one made a good display unit for dolls houses with storage underneath and in the drawers. Other things you could repurpose are bookshelves, cupboards, by removing the door and perhaps replacing it with glass or perspex. You could sit dolls on armchairs or beds or even sitting in old suitcases.
My main storage is open shelving though and these were quite cheaply made with brackets and timber planks. Many of these were repurposed too as they were bookshelves in our old house. David recut them to fit the new space and we bought some more as the collection grew. My shelves are varnished but they could be painted in a colour to suit the room as could the furniture if you are using a lot of random pieces and want them to match. All you need to put these up is a drill and preferably a spirit level to keep everything straight. A friend to help is very handy as well. They are also easy to take with you if you move. I have dismantled similar shelves I had for books in my new bedroom and we will be able to use them again in the next house for whatever we need them for.
I know we have all looked at photos of people’s doll displays where there are so many dolls you just can’t take it in or even see all of them properly. I’d like to avoid that, especially with the fashion dolls as we have so many now that our collections have merged. I have created a two-level shelf for the vintage Barbies by putting some boxes at the back of the shelf for some to stand on. Rotation is another thing that some people do and it is sensible because it’s better for the dolls not to be crowded too but I don’t think I’d ever put the vintage girls away. The modern Barbies that I get out to photograph and play with often are stored in drawers and tubs so I save space that way.
There are all sorts of custom made doll display cabinets and cases on sale too. Some are for specific types of dolls, some are made to hang on a wall, others may be free-standing.
If you have space and enjoy props as much as Naomi and I do you can use things like cots, prams and high chairs to display dolls in as well. Room boxes and dioramas are also a fun way to display dolls. It’s fun to create a little scene that you can change from time to time as the fancy takes you. My 1:6 dolls house is primarily a display unit now as I needed more space for the fashion dolls but I can always take them out if I want to use it.
I do recommend the use of doll stands. I have had many dolls take tumbles from high shelving and I’m gradually trying to get stands for all the dolls who are standing. I have been concentrating on the fashion dolls because their shelves are crowded but eventually I’d like all the dolls to be supported in some way. There are all sorts of different stands available made from metal, plastic or wood. Most are waist gripping, some support the doll at the ankle, calf or between the legs and others are specially designed for teddies or babies to sit in. My personal favourite fashion doll stands are the ones made by Kaiser. I find them more sturdy than plastic and less likely to break. They also come in many sizes from tiny ones for dolls house dolls to really large. Some are designed for tiny waisted fashion dolls and they are my favourite for Barbie and friends. For the larger dolls, I have a few chairs for those that can sit. I also like to display the bigger dolls with a doll or toy of their own. It’s a good way to display smaller dolls, teddies and other odd toys.
Finally, because I’m certainly no expert in this subject here are a few links to other articles on the subject of displays.